A visit to the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort in January, 2020, was my last trip before the world shut down. Two months earlier, the 500-acre resort, located on Puerto Rico’s northern coast 35 minutes east of San Juan, had just held its inaugural Taste of Rio Mar, a three-day festival where chefs from around the island flexed their culinary muscles at a series of dinners and other events. General manager Nils Stolzlechner had planned to expand the experience in the fall of 2020 to include both burgeoning and established global chefs.
During my visit two years ago, staff at the beachfront property, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and El Yunque National Forest on the other, was busy trying to convince some skittish upcoming guests that the recent string of earthquakes on the opposite southwest coast hadn’t affected operations—a welcome relief after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017 caused the resort to close for several months. Fast forward a few months, and the resort was forced to shutter once again because of the pandemic.
While that meant the Wyndham was unable to host a Taste of Rio Mar in 2020, the good news is that November 12-14, 2021, saw the return of the lauded event, proving once again that Puerto Rico’s culinary scene is as vibrant, delicious and often surprising as its talent is innovative and deftly able to synergistically showcase traditional island ingredients and dishes along with modern influences and global flavors.
The fact that the Wyndham can lure other chefs on Puerto Rico from their ranges and ovens for a few days of cooking on someone else’s equipment isn’t all that surprising when you consider the pedigree of who helms their in-house restaurants. Executive chef Ramón Carrillo oversees Roots Coastal Kitchen, which was revamped shortly before my visit two years ago from an Asian bistro to a farm-to-table restaurant with Puerto Rican, Floribbean and Southern influences.
It’s a collaboration between Carrillo and Top Chef alums (and business and life partners) Jeff McInnis, a Florida native, and Janine Booth, who hails from Australia. The duo, who run the Southern-inspired Root & Bone in New York, pop down to the Wyndham several times a year for menu refreshes and staff training.
During a lunch at Roots Coastal Kitchen where the kitchen showed off some signature dishes and unveiled some new ones, McInnis told us that he was just blown away with the design of his Wyndham outpost. It is stunning, with a muted palette, espresso-wood spindle chairs, hanging greenery, inlaid tile and hardwood parquet flooring, comfy sofa banquettes with throw pillows and built-in shelving minimally adorned with vases, bottles and wicker-wrapped candle holders.
As for the food, I learned that weekend that McInnis and Booth go all in on fried chicken, and that’s a very, very good thing. At Roots, locally procured birds take an extended soak in sweet tea brine before being dusted with dehydrated citrus peels, breaded and fried, served with Tabasco honey. Finger lickin’ good indeed. Conch fritter batter included pieces cut just large enough to give a pleasant chewiness with each bite and got a little kick from a swipe through spicy aioli, while taco shells filled with sweet local shrimp needed nothing more than a squeeze of lime and a bit of avocado and cilantro.
Take a short stroll (or grab the shuttle) to Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña overlooking the two golf courses, and the cuisine is what you might describe as authentic Puerto Rican—with a twist. But that doesn’t mean that executive chef Jorge Cátala dares mess too much with a beloved dish like mofongo, which comes with a choice of being stuffed with garlic shrimp, skirt steak, chicken Creole or vegetable stew. My caption for the IG story photo of succulent Caribbean lobster with garlic sauce accurately described it is almost bigger than me, and rich pork belly is sourced from Niman Ranch and slathered with a fun tropical guava-papaya teriyaki sauce. If you don’t save room for their take on tres leche cake inspired by the Coquito—Puerto Rico’s answer to eggnog—you’re doing it wrong; a sprinkle of kettle corn and meringue give a welcome crunch.
Marbella is open each morning for a buffet or a la carte breakfast, and the Tiki Hut & Pool Bar and Five o’Clock Somewhere are fun al fresco spots to fuel up on rum punch, frozen tipples, barbecued chicken skewers and fish tacos, though Palio Seafood & Steakhouse remains closed for the time being due. And as a sugarcane spirit fan, I found a warm welcome at the sleek, handsome Caicu Rum Bar adjacent to the lobby. The lounge is a partnership with Bacardi, whose bottles are prominently displayed on the back bar, but you can sip silver, gold, aged and dark rums from across the Caribbean.
As I discovered on the kick-off evening of the Taste of Rio Mar as I settled into a comfy barstool, the best way to do it was via a flight of three expressions. Rich, complex, Zafra 21-Year-Old Rum from Panama, toasted oak- and orange peel-tinged Guatemala Zacapa XO, and uber-sippable Don Q Gran Anejo from Puerto Rico were served in funky curvy beveled rocks glasses on an acacia board with accompanying cards to describe their production method and flavor profile. The cocktail menu is peppered with classics like the Old Fashioned and Mai Tai, as well as fun riffs like a soursop Mojito and Guava Margarita. The mixologists told me that the libation list will soon expand, with some surprises–including a bit of flair bartending.
The setting for the weekend’s opening event, a walk-around reception with small plates from each of the participating chefs and accompanying wines, couldn’t have been prettier: adjacent to the sound of the surf, with white globe string lights, and an asymmetrical leotard-clad fire eater to watch between sips and bites. My strategy was to start light, which meant plates like saffron-cured flounder with charred scallions and sour orange vinaigrette paired with Fume Blanc from celebrated chef José Enrique of the namesake San Juan restaurant and guava-glazed sofrito lobster tempura.
The standout seafood dish, though, came from Catala: halibut escabeche with a celery root fritter and beet tuile; the dish sang with the tang of a spritzy, citrus-y Albarino. Carrillo served lean and tender venison medallions over a pumpkin puree, drizzled with rhubarb Cabernet sauce and paired with a fruity Penfold Shiraz, while James Beard-finalist chef José Mendín, founder of Miami-based Pubbelly Restaurant Group gave a little welcome crunch, heat and pop of acid to his Wagyu beef tartare toast topped with caviar and Florida stone crab via tart green apple, wasabi aioli, and yuzu dijonnaise.
But the consensus with my crew was that McInnis and Booth prepared the most talked-about and memorable course of the night (I’m literally still dreaming about it.) Seared baby lamb chops from Booth’s native Down Under received the Thai treatment, topped with fish caramel sauce and chopped peanuts, accompanied with a Som Tum-like slaw made with (what else?) local green papaya. So unexpected. So flavorful.
New this year was a cigar bar, where catador Cynthia Gonzalez assisted guests in selecting, cutting and lighting smokes which could be paired with several different Cognacs. Gonzalez, also the founder of the Puerto Rico Cigar Festival and a writer for publications including Humo Latino Magazine, is a big proponent of making cigars accessible to women, whom she dubs “sisters of the leaf.” While it’s not a habit in which I often partake, hanging out after dinner on one of the couches enjoying a fine cigar was all great fun; judging from the crowd gathered at the bar it’s safe to assume it’s an activity that’ll make a reappearance next year.
Dinner the following evening was a decidedly more formal affair. Held at Iguanas, it was an ambitious menu of seven courses (one from each participating chef) partnered with wines from Wyndham sommeliers. For his dish, Carrillo told me that the river shrimp were pulled from El Yunque that day; his whimsical presentation served the shellfish with a spoonful of Osetra, lime juice infused with uni, a rice cracker, and an irresistible batter-fried shrimp head. I washed it down with a flute of Krug, as one does. The accoutrements on Mendin’s Milanese carpaccio–black truffles, yuzu, pickled onions and balsamic–detracted a bit from the delicate meat, but I could have crushed a dozen of McInnis and Booth’s labor-intensive chicken wings, which had been deboned, stuffed with bacon and shrimp, then reattached and fried.
The delightful, affable Juan Jose Cuevas of San Juan’s 1919 Restaurant got the gold star of the evening from me for his tomato water-kombu poached halibut over freekeh and chickpeas, so silky I would have sworn it had been prepared sous vide; a soft and elegant Oregon Pinot Noir was the perfect pairing. Enrique spiced up a filet with ras el hanout, while Mario Pagán added depth and earthiness to lamb confit with tamarind and adobo, alongside a Tempranillo from Abadia Retuerta in Ribera del Duero Spain.
Taste of Rio Mar capped off Sunday morning with a walk-around over-the-top brunch, also at Iguanas, where the bubbly was flowing (four kinds, to be exact, plus other bottles to kick off the day, and chefs at their stations had one final chance to wow us with dishes to break our fast. Catala’s decadent sesame-coated French toast with syrup and arroz con leche would have been just at home on the dessert menu, especially with the slightly sweet Taittinger Demi-Sec Champagne, while lobster and saffron sausage links were plated with tostóns that swapped out the typical plantains for breadfruit. And McInnis and Booth once again showed attendees that bird is the word, and Brut Rose was a perfect palate-scrubbing foil for their fried chicken biscuits with spicy pepper jelly.
As I made my way back to the resort lobby and waited for my airport shuttle, I took one last glimpse through the several stories high windows that peer out onto the poolscape and the azure blue of the ocean beyond. It had been wonderful to return to this little slice of heaven on Puerto Rico’s East End; I couldn’t wait to see what treats and talent were in store for 2022’s event.
Note: As of press time, the Government of Puerto Rico requires all visitors to the resort to present either evidence that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with an FDA-approved vaccine or a negative COVID-19 PCR molecular or antigen test taken within the last 72 hours. Proof of compliance will be required to check in to the hotel. If it is not provided, then your reservation will be canceled at no penalty to you.